Konstantin Nikiforov is a Russian historian, specialist in Slavonic Studies, PhD in History, Director of Slavonic Studies Institute at Russian Academy of Sciences. Throughout his scientific activity, he has been specializing in history of the Balkans, and first of all Serbia. In 2000, he defended doctoral thesis on the topic: “The Bosnian Crisis and Russia’s Stance (1992-1995).”
In an interview with EADaily, Konstantin Nikiforov shares his views of the Kosovo conflict settlement, the reasons why the Serbian issue is much wider than the Kosovo one and why Serbs need to hold on to the Republika Srpska.
The Kosovo status has become relevant again after President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic announced the start of “internal dialogue” on the future of the southern Serbian autonomous region. The Kosovo issue is a constituent part of the general issue connected with the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, including the current state of the Serbian people. There are many suggestions of a possible platform on Kosovo which Vucic promised to announce in March 2018. What to expect by that time? What options are there concerning the Kosovo status?
There is no simple answer to this question. It is hard to guess anything. As historians, we look at what has happened and not at what will happen. Anyway, I think Vucic has found himself in a very hard situation. It appears that his party and he are set to join the EU. At present, even the biggest optimists see that this is impossible without recognition of Kosovo. Earlier, they thought they would give up generals and do something else, and they will be forgiven. At first, they thought, they would sell out Milosevic, Karadzic, then Mladić, afterwards, we will recognize something and start a dialogue with the so-called government of Kosovo etc. Now, everyone, including Aleksandar Vucic, understands that without recognizing Kosovo, they will not let him to proceed. After the Brussels agreements, he has approached the verge.
They say the current government concerning Kosovo has sold out more than others did. In fact, every new government in Serbia yielded something. Now, they are on the verge. Therefore, it seems that Vucic has yielded even more, because every following step looks a bigger surrender than the previous one. I think Vucic is ready to make another step, the final one. It is evident that this idea is not popular in Serbia, especially after NATO’s aggression. For Serbs, such Kosovo is the soul of the nation.
Vucic is trying to wage that “internal dialogue,” but there is an impression that he put the cart before the horse. “Internal dialogue” should have been launched first, and make certain steps afterwards. He has already made those steps and now insists on an “internal dialogue.” No much to speak about…
I think Serbia is always late by several steps when it comes to Kosovo. Serbia received Kosovo after the First Balkan War. There were already more Albanians than Serbs there, but the difference was not that critical. Serbia was “yielding ground” throughout the 20th century. In the inter-war period, it tried to do something – colonials arrived, but they were not allowed to return after war. Whereas Albanians that fled to Kosovo from Albania during the war remained there after it. No population census has been held for a long time already, but overwhelming majority of the population in the territory of Kosovo are Albanians and it is hard to figure out anything. I think, Vucic understands this quite well.
Supposing that Kosovo becomes part of Serbia again, will Serbs agree that two million of Kosovan Albanians and the Albanians from south of Serbia live in the Serbia? This means that the situation at the Serbian parliament will resemble the situation in Macedonia – a very powerful Albanian party, and maybe an Albanian speaker of the parliament. The Albanian language could be a second state language. Will Serbs agree on that? Few Serbs will say: yes, I want all that. Many will say: I want Kosovo, but I do not want all the rest. How to combine all that? It is impossible to expel Albanians – it is the 21st century. What to do? It is hard to say?
I have always thought that most of all Serbs care for what once Solzhenitsyn suggested for Russia – preservation of the people. As Putin once said about Crimea, “The territory does not matter; the people who live there matter.” Serbia should support the Serbs of Kosovo by all means possible. I think Serbia does not make enough efforts to that end. There was an idea to create a Union of Serbian Communities, but it has faded away. Serb List Party participated in the elections, but we know who leads Kosovo now. The Hague Tribunal is a special issue, but both Hashim Thaci and Ramush Haradinaj and all the others must be there. Being in the same team with them is…ok, if the current Serbian government is ready to distance itself from Kosovo gradually. If it tries to keep something, fight and keep at least certain ground, it is time to speak of the north of Kosovo. So far, I do not see that Serbian government takes real steps to that end. Earlier, it did, now it exerts less and less efforts.
Don’t you think that the Serb List Party may really influence the policy of Kosovo?
The Albanian leadership of Kosovo can use it exclusively for propaganda purposes.
What moments in the Serbian policy of the 20th century are the most important ones? What could be done to avoid what Serbs are facing now?
I think, in the 19th century, after two insurgencies, after autonomy was formed, Serbs were ahead of their neighbor Croatians and Bulgarians by their national awareness. They were aware of their nationality and that they are a nation that should establish its state. Within that long period, 200 years, their neighbors have developed their national awareness, for instance, Catholic Serbs in Dalmatia became Croatians. The entire military border passed to Croatia. Almost no Serbs have remained in Croatia now. During revival, mostly the residents of Croatia were called Croatians. There was Slavonia, Dalmatia and various regions. Now, all this is Croatia and the entire population is Croatians. This feeling of identity has weakened in Serbia. In the inter war period, which we have mentioned, when Serbia returned Kosovo, there were “Precani” (Serbs from Vojvodina, earlier controlled by Austria-Hungary - EADaily), and Serbians (Serbs from regions that were under Ottoman rule) and “Precani” were considered to be different people. All that continued in 90s, during the conflict in former Yugoslavia too. I remember that Serbs at pubs used to point at certain territories on maps saying, “we will yet bring it back.” However, the attitude to Bosnian Serbs was equivocal.
Why is there a separatist flow in Vojvodina? In Kosovo, it is clear, there are Albanians there. Although the population in Vojvodina is ethnic Serbs, there is still certain separatism there. They consider themselves a kind of different Serbs.
The most violent contrast for me is Montenegrin Serbs, half of whom actually regard themselves as a kind of different “Montenegrins,” though everyone knows that historically there were two Serbian states. One will no longer find any Cyrillic signage in Montenegro and you will hear there that Serbs are worse than Turks. If you ask, “why do you strive to NATO, who will attack you, Russia?” They will answer: “Of course not, Russia is our friend; we strive for NATO because of Serbs.” You will hear this from part of the Serbian people. Here is what division has resulted in it.
The major problem in Serbia now is division of the Serbian self-consciousness. When all this was just beginning, Serbs are ahead of everyone. Now, they have found themselves behind all their neighbors. One can discuss the reasons behind all this, but I think there is an evident paradox here.
Talking about Serbia, we cannot but ask about Russia’s diplomatic and political efforts in that country?
These efforts have evolutionized. They were different in 1990s, 2000s and now. However, we have always wanted to see more active efforts. Maybe, the moment when Russia came out against recognition of Kosovo was crucial. Before that we withdrew our peacekeepers, said that all the issues were settled and they had nothing to do there any longer. It was so strange, since the March pogroms happened in a year, or even less than a year. Afterwards, as far as I know Koštunica met Putin in Sochi and the latter made quite different assessment saying that it was senseless to be present where we cannot influence anything and where we have no our responsibility zone. I think that was the turning point. It was a crucial point in politics too. Recall the Munich speech of Vladimir Putin. We took a firm stance on Kosovo and have remained more or less committed to it. Much depends on Serbs. What do they, in fact, need? It is not clear enough to me. I do not know if it is clear to our diplomats. Neither it is clear to me what Serbs need from Russia. They often say that we cannot be more Serbs than Serbs themselves are. That’s right, but if Serbs have an exact stance on any issue, we support them.
Serbia’s government is determined to access EU. By the way, no one will directly ask the people about their stance on. Like in Montenegro, there was no referendum on accession to NATO, in Serbia there will probably be no referendum on accession to EU.
Therefore, I say that what Vucic calls “internal dialogue” should have been held before he adopted decision to access EU, and not after or simultaneously to it.
Department of State representatives travel to Serbia and tell it to “stop sitting on two chairs,” to stop developing Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš, and to make a choice. Serbs would like to preserve their special relations with Russia, but I am afraid EU will eventually make them move to one of the two chairs.
Will the moment of accession to EU become a turning point for the Russian-Serbian relations?
Of course, our history is richer, older and stronger. However, if Serbia is forced to impose sanctions on Russia along with the European Union, what effect do you think it will have on our relations? What does it mean to impose sanctions? It means to declare economic war. If Serbia gets involved into the war against Russia, even into an economic one, it will be perceived negatively. Anyway, I repeat that our relations are older and richer, and they will be preserved by the people.